Tag Archives: Department of Energy

On Fault Lines: Nuclear Waste Storage in the United States

Yucca Mountain, image wikipedia

A bipartisan quartet of senators dropped a draft of a long-awaited bill on April 25, 2013 that would change how the United States stores nuclear waste.  The draft bill would enable the transfer of spent nuclear fuel currently housed at commercial nuclear facilities to intermediate storage sites. It also would allow states and local governments to apply to host the nation’s long-term waste repository.It also proposes creating a new federal agency to manage nuclear waste, taking that responsibility from the Energy Department (DOE). The president would appoint the head of that agency, which would be subject to Senate confirmation…The bill largely implements findings by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, an expert panel convened by President Obama in 2010. Some of the suggestions that made it into the draft bill will likely run into opposition.

Chiefly, Republicans will not be keen on moving nuclear waste to interim storage sites before a permanent repository has been identified.  The draft legislation calls for a pilot project to take in waste from high-risk areas — such as waste stored near fault lines — by 2021. After that, any nuclear waste could be sent to interim storage units so long as “substantial progress” is being made to site and select a permanent repository.  An alternative proposal by Feinstein and Alexander would require proposals for the pilot program to be submitted no later than six months after the bill becomes law.  But GOP lawmakers worry that interim storage sites would turn into de facto permanent ones without identifying a permanent facility.  They point to the recent flap regarding the Yucca Mountain site as a cautionary tale.  Obama pulled the plug on Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews of DOE’s application to use the Nevada site in 2009.

Republicans viewed it as a political move — Obama campaigned on shuttering Yucca, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opposes the site. They also said it was illegal because federal law identifies Yucca as the nation’s lone permanent repository.  Republicans, therefore, want to ensure a permanent site is selected before transporting waste to interim facilities to avoid a similar political kerfuffle.  GOP lawmakers might also oppose the draft bill’s call for a “consent-based” process that lets states and local governments apply to host the nation’s permanent repository.  Again, they say it’s a legal issue. Since a 1982 federal law fingers Yucca as the nation’s sole permanent nuclear waste dump, some Republicans argue there can be no others.  That’s the line House Republicans have taken.  They say any legislation coming over from the Senate that doesn’t identify Yucca as the nation’s permanent repository won’t move. And Senate legislation has almost no chance of including such a component considering Reid’s virulent opposition to Yucca.

Murkowski and the bill’s other backers have tried to minimize the Yucca issue by contending that more than one permanent storage site is likely necessary to handle the nation’s volume of nuclear waste.  The Alaska Republican has said she doesn’t want to give up on Yucca, but that she wants to do something about nuclear waste. She said the matter is urgent, pointing to leaking nuclear waste containers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state….

Zack Colman, Senators float nuclear waste storage draft bill, The Hill, April 25,  2013

Storage of Nuclear Waste in the United States II: New Mexico

The (Savannah River SiteSRS Citizens Advisory Board will discuss a recommendation to send some or all of the site’s 3,100 “ready for shipment” canisters of stabilized waste to the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., where lower-level “transuranic” nuclear waste is buried in 250 million-year-old salt deposits a half-mile beneath the Chihuahuan Desert.  The most dangerous waste at SRS is being vitrified – placed into glass poured into steel canisters that, until the Obama administration canceled the Yucca Mountain project in 2010, were to be removed from South Carolina for burial in Nevada.

“SRS is now storing these canisters with no known final disposition path,” the board wrote in a draft recommendation to be discussed at its May 21-22 meeting in Savannah, Ga. Ultimately, the number of canisters will swell to 7,500, equiring – in addition to two existing storage buildings – the construction of a third storage site.  The indefinite storage of high-level waste that DOE pledged to remove from South Carolina “has not been accepted well by the surrounding communities” and undermines DOE’s credibility, the draft said.

The WIPP site was designed for the disposition of the same type of canisters stored at SRS but is licensed only for less-concentrated radioactive wastes, such as lightly contaminated clothing, tools and other materials. Because of that difference, revising the facility’s acceptance criteria would likely require approval from Congress.  “From our limited understanding the WIPP site would be technically feasible and it seems to have an astounding amount of capacity to accept radioactive waste,” the draft said. “Further, any attempt to have canisters removed from SRS would have an immediate positive impact on the surrounding communities.”

The board is a stakeholder group that provides the assistant secretary for environmental management and designees with advice, information and recommendations on issues affecting the environmental and cleanup programs.

By Rob Pavey,SRS nuclear waste could go to New Mexico facility, The Augusta Chronicle, May 10, 2012